The fluid ounce was originally the volume occupied by one ounce of some substance, for example wine (in England) or water (in Scotland). The ounce in question also varied depending on the system of fluid measure, such as that used for wine versus ale.

Various ounces were used over the centuries, including the Tower ounce, troy ounce, avoirdupois ounce, and ounces used in international trade, such as Paris troy, a situation further complicated by the medieval practice of "allowances", whereby a unit of measure was not necessarily equal to the sum of its parts. For example, the 364-pound woolsack (165 kg) had a 14-pound allowance (6.4 kg) for the weight of the sack and other packaging materials.